Relationships between humans and civilised extraterrestrials are the basis of a successful science fiction franchise, but how would we kick off a conversation with a real alien race?

Speaking at the British Science Festival, Dr Anders Sandberg of the University of Oxford announced that the UK research network for the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (UKSRN) will develop a message that could form the first contact with intelligent life beyond the Earth. UKSRN will be competing for the $1M Breakthrough Message prize, an initiative set up to determine the best way of announcing our presence to the rest of the galaxy.

“The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is very relevant because it helps us figure out more about the possibilities and fate of intelligence in the universe,” said Dr Sandberg. “Whatever the answer is, it is bound to profoundly affect how we see ourselves.”

What form should a message to an alien race take? “Pictures are self-contained, they’re iconic, they might be easier to interpret than something more complicated,” said Dr Sandberg. The Voyager 1 probe, the only man-made object to have left the solar system, carries a record with pictures of people and DNA, as well as examples of music and spoken greetings in different languages. 

A trickier question is what information we should be prepared to divulge: would it be prudent to whitewash the less flattering aspects of our history? “I personally believe that we shouldn’t, we should expose ourselves to them warts and all”, said Dr Jill Stuart, a space politics specialist at the London School of Economics. She believes that devising a greeting that represents the entire human race will help us understand ourselves better, even if the message is never transmitted.

Indeed, the Breakthrough Message Initiative makes no guarantees that the winning message will ever be sent, and the jury is still out on whether active communication with aliens is wise. Dr Sandberg added that UKSRN is far from reaching a consensus on the issue: “We were very evenly split – half agreed we should, half felt we should not.”

Concerns include the possibility that a message may invite attack from an advanced, hostile alien species, or disturb a more primitive civilisation. It’s unlikely that any species encountered will have been around for exactly the same length of time as humans, so interaction would probably be unequal. Dr Sandberg pointed out that such relationships usually end in tears.

Despite these concerns, Dr Sandberg remains slightly in favour of transmitting a message. “I’m an optimist”, he said, “but I do see some problems.” Dr Stuart was more emphatic in her support: “I’m in favour”, she said, “because of what it makes us do, reflecting back on ourselves.” Even if the galaxy we send our greeting to turns out to be empty and barren of life, maybe deciding how we would like to be seen by an alien race will be a valuable lesson.

Dr Jo Barstow is a 2015 British Science Association Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was funded by STFC, and she was placed at the Conversation. She is a post-doctoral researcher in Planetary Physics at the University of Oxford.

Image credit: Sweetie187 via Flickr